Cultural Sensitivity and Awareness

A Guide for ESL Tutors

As a tutor, you will be working with students from other cultures. You will gain an appreciation for different cultures by providing the student with an atmosphere of trust and acceptance. Encourage the student to talk about his/her family and country. If you are asked about American customs, be sensitive to the tutee’s viewpoints. What is socially acceptable in the U.S. might be unthinkable in the student’s culture. Most foreign students are eager to talk about their country and traditions. This interaction might be a valuable learning experience for you.

What is Culture?

Culture is defined as the sum total of acquired values, beliefs, customs, and traditions experienced by a group as familiar and normal. It includes language, religion, customs, and a history of the people. Students today come from a variety of cultural backgrounds worldwide and within the United States.

Understanding Culture

Culture refers to the entire social heritage—a way of life and worldviews—of a distinct group of people. Culture is not something foreign, or confined to ethnic or indigenous peoples. Culture informs and affects all human behavior.

This heritage can include:

  • Values
  • Perceptions
  • Ideas
  • Attitudes
  • Goals

Cultural Implications

Although people of the same cultural background may share communal attributes and ideas, such as language, many other factors influence individual actions and the degree to which people identify themselves with a cultural group. These factors include:

  • Socio-economic status
  • Education level
  • Time of arrival
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Gender
  • English language proficiency
  • Pre-migration and migration experiences

Cultural Awareness

Being culturally aware means understanding that cultures are always relative and dynamic. This means that cultural values may evolve out of issues relating to a particular place and time, and, as a result, should not be thought of as either universal or permanent phenomena. Culture then, is always changing; it is never set or normal or right. Cultural awareness also necessarily involves an awareness of one’s own culturally learned assumptions, values, and myths.

Cultural Sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity entails respecting and accommodating people and their cultural backgrounds. This includes:

  • avoiding making judgments about what is right and wrong, good and bad, about other cultures
  • refraining from making decisions about what is in someone’s “best interest” without first considering all of the cultural implications being aware of one’s own value base and how this value base impacts upon service provision

What are some cultural differences I might encounter?

  • Cultures vary as to the physical distance you should maintain while interacting with another person. If somebody seems to be talking in your face, that person may just be following the norms of his or her culture.
  • Be alert to the fact that while you may feel that you need to sit close to someone to tutor him or her, your closeness may be offensive. If you sense that a problem may arise, ask before you move closer.
  • Some cultures may consider it rude to make direct eye contact, so don’t take it personally if a student won’t look you in the eye.
  • American culture values linear, logical thinking patterns. Other cultures prefer to arrive at their conclusions indirectly and through inference; still other cultures use a back-and-forth approach, starting at the beginning, moving on to another point, going back to the beginning, and so on. All these approaches are valid, but Americans are probably looking for a linear, beginning-middle-end format, and you can sometimes help foreign students by explaining this concept to them.

Communicating with ESL Students

People from culturally and linguistically diverse communities face unique challenges in seeking to adjust to a new dominant culture. The following techniques are useful in matching speech patterns to the needs of those who are experiencing difficulty with oral skills.

  • Simple, active and present verb tense
  • Talk slowly and clearly. Repeat, use synonyms.
  • Use as many examples and models as possible
  • Normal volume
  • Controlled or high frequency vocabulary
  • Avoid use of slang and idioms
  • Paraphrasing words, phrases, or sentences
  • Non-verbal cues (for example: pointing at words, visuals, or pantomiming)
  • Correction by restating or modeling

Tips for Working with ESL Students


  • Be patient. Try to imagine yourself in their country as a student.
  • Be sensitive to their cultural perspectives (including cultural thought patterns.)
  • Explain the cultural expectations of American Higher Education.
  • Help them to know how to use the library and computer lab.
  • Give lots of speaking practice.
  • Speak clearly, naturally and avoid using lots of slang.
  • Ask students to repeat what you have just said to show understanding.
  • If a student has trouble understanding you, write down what you are saying. If you have trouble understanding the student, ask him or her to write down what he/she is saying.
  • Use lots of repetition.
  • Put everything you study into context.
  • Get some second language skills yourself.
  • Encourage each student to take an active part of the tutoring session; there should be “equal time” for the student to talk or ask questions and it is sometimes easy to forget to stop and wait for questions to be formulated. Sometimes you need to wait in silence before a question gets asked. In some cultures a student does not ask questions.
  • Thank the student for questions. Some students are deathly afraid to ask a question, so praising a question is a good way to encourage more.
  • Encourage students to make friends outside of class because this will improve their English.
  • If you are helping with note-taking, encourage students to pair up with native English speakers to compare class notes.
  • Write down words the student does not know.
  • Encourage students to use their dictionaries, including the phonetic “helpers” at the bottom of the pages which aid in the pronunciation of new words.
  • Encourage students to read without looking up every single word.
  • Tell students that reading English is the best way to learn new vocabulary.
  • Ask the students to give examples when explaining concepts.
  • Ask students to become the tutor and explain the concept to you.
  • Have students write a sentence or paragraph to answer questions.
  • Search for answers to questions with the students.
  • Use restatement to clarify students’ responses; “I think you said…”
  • Admit it if there is a communication problem; “I don’t understand.”
  • Ask frequently if what you are saying “makes sense” to the student. Is the information clear to them as presented by you?



  • Don’t categorize students. ESL students come from a large variety of backgrounds.
  • Don’t treat students like children. English language proficiency does not indicate intelligence or ability level.
  • Don’t try to change your students’ language patterns by teaching them standard English. Respect their oral speech habits and encourage them to add standard English to their everyday language patterns, especially in the area of writing.
  • ESL students may ask you to correct their speech when they feel comfortable, but don’t assume this is the case unless asked.
  • Don’t make snap judgments about someone’s English skills based only on speaking ability.
  • Don’t be too serious. Make some “small talk” and try to use new vocabulary in a context the students are familiar with.
  • Don’t assume cultural or background knowledge.
  • Don’t just explain something. Use examples instead.
  • Don’t act as if you understand the student if you don’t.
  • Don’t speak too slowly; it might tend to raise your voice volume and/or to make your speech unnatural.
  • Although it might be hard to understand your normal speech pattern, with practice the student will become familiar with it and in the long run, it will help him/her understand other native English speakers. You can lengthen your speech and insert more pauses; this might help a student understand more easily.
  • Don’t be afraid to correct the student.
  • Don’t let a student “lose face” by putting them on the spot by asking “Do you understand.” Instead use activities that will demonstrate their understanding.

Sources and References

Renee Berta (1994) Accommodating Cultural Differences

Barbara Gottschalk (1995), ESL Instructor. Youngstown State University.

Lewin, Ellen, Tutoring Tips for ESL Tutoring. Learning Assistance Center, Minnesota Community College; Minneapolis.

Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services, Continuous Handbook Improvement (2004)


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